Joan Didion’s precision with words extended even to words she would never live to hear, such as those used during a small private service this spring at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“He left very clear instructions on what he wanted to happen at that service,” the Right Reverend Patrick Malloy said Wednesday night, at the start of a memorial service at the Cathedral. “He wanted it to be very brief and he specified the texts he wanted us to use, all from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which is what you would expect from an Episcopalian who wrote a book called ‘A Book of Common Prayer.'”
The texts he chose were “remarkably severe,” Malloy explained, and were not from the contemporary edition of the Book of Common Prayer, but from an older, ornate printing. It was Didion’s way of reminding everyone that the sounds of the words and their rhythm meant as much as the words themselves.
Didion, a master of rhythm and the meaning of the unsaid, was remembered Wednesday as an inspiring and fearless writer and a valued, demanding and sometimes eccentric friend, the kind who didn’t like to talk on the phone unless they asked him or that he could do it. serving chocolate souffles at a girl’s birthday party because he didn’t know how to bake a cake.
Hundreds were presented with programs and laminated fans as they entered the Cathedral on a summer afternoon, the first day of fall, where the scale of the building was too great for the cost of air conditioning. Carl Bernstein, Donna Tartt and Fran Lebowitz were among those in attendance, along with family, friends and editors and other colleagues from The New Yorker and its latest publisher, Penguin Random House.
Didion, who died last December at age 87, left no immediate family: her husband, co-writer and writing partner John Gregory Dunne died in 2003, followed less than two years later by their only son, Quintana Roo. But the speakers spanned much of her life, from Sacramento and Malibu in California to Manhattan’s Upper Side East, from her years as a child already preoccupied with language to her prime as an extraordinarily astute observer of contemporary society to her time as an older sage and prototype for younger authors.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, here as a generational fellow and Sacramento native, remembered Didion as a close friend of his older sister Nancy and a frequent dinner guest. She was a gifted and “thoughtful” child, cerebral beyond her age, that she would “think and write and think and write, all over again.” Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking via recorded video, also shared memories of Sacramento and Didion as a college friend of his sister.
“She and Joan would share a cigarette and talk about the novels they were reading,” he said. “Years later, my sister’s most vivid memory was of Joan coming down to breakfast in a pink chenille robe, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking cigarettes.”
Calvin Trillin read Didion’s scathing coverage of the 1988 political conventions, when he observed that in high school she preferred to be surrounded by people who hung out at gas stations, an environment not otherwise invoked during a more formal ceremony. populated with party stories, literary craft. and the Rolling Stones.
Vanessa Redgrave, her white hair pulled back and covered by a dark fedora, read Didion’s famous memoir of pain, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which Redgrave had performed onstage years earlier while Didion sat. I sat backstage at every show. .
Susanna Moore, Didion’s longtime friend and fellow author, distilled decades of conversation into some of Didion’s aphorisms: “Evil is the absence of seriousness.” “Madness is never interesting.” “She would drop this whole idea of knowing the truth.” Actress Susan Traylor, Roo’s childhood friend, spoke of feeling homesick while she spent Christmas in Hawaii with the Didions.
“Without raising the issue, she (Joan Didion) reached out and patted my head,” Traylor recalled. “’What you should know is that your mother told me that the reason she let you miss Christmas at home is that she thought it would be nice if you knew you could get through it without her.’ And I was fine.
The show began with reflections on the Book of Common Prayer and ended with secular scriptures, Patti Smith performing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” Backed by Tony Shanahan on acoustic guitar, Smith sang in a steady, piercing rhythm, as if she were mimicking the cadence of Didion’s prose.
Playing for the sore whose wounds cannot be healed
For the countless confused, accused, abused, hanged and worse
And for every obsessed person in the whole wide universe
And we behold the chimes of freedom flickering
Smith repeated the last line, but changed “we” to “her.” She finished with a single spoken word: “Joan.”